The French alchemist Stanislas Klossowski de Rola is a delightful enigma. From being an aristocratic hippy-socialite and reefer-smoking roué of the 60s (friend of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Paul Simon), he is now considered to be a serious scholar of alchemical engravings.
1988 saw the publication of his Florilegium, The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century (UK translation published 1998). It was preceded by the current book, which was first published in 1973 in Thames and Hudson’s ‘Art And Imagination’ series as Alchemy: The Secret Art, more as a coffee-table book than anything. It took the form of a long essay on philosophical Alchemy plus a reprint of Eirenaeus Philalethes’ comments on the poetic ‘Vision’ of Canon Ripley (from his Twelve Gates), interspersed with dozens and dozens of alchemical engravings, mostly in beautiful colour. (This style of alchemical presentation is very much in the old tradition, with the process often being shown mainly through pictures. One book (the Mutus Liber) has almost no text.)
These images, at one level, are a coded formula for chemists but, at another level, they become meditation pieces for students of the philosophical/spiritual approach to Alchemy. The choice of images shows the author’s understanding of Alchemy. Though they are functional images and all are accompanied by notes explaining what part of the process they relate to, they also make a glorious gallery of alchemical mandalas. The French have always been more philosophical and astrological in their approach to Alchemy than the English-speaking world and Klossowski de Rola is firmly of that tradition. A few of the pages reproduce well-known, engraved sequences of the alchemical process but most of the book is given over to imagery, often exotic never-before-seen paintings and hand illustrations, copied from obscure manuscripts. The author, obviously, sees Alchemy principally in Art.
His essay focuses on the practical work with plants and dew in order to make a perfect elixir which acts in both the spiritual and the medical worlds. It is the philosophical ‘Gold of a Thousand Mornings’. Alchemy, for Klossowski de Rola is not about physical gold but about illumination.
The current reprint is enigmatic in that it is not an exact reprint. The title has been changed. The first book was large format while the new book is half its size. The text has been changed ever so slightly. Plates have been shuffled around and some which were full-page are now quarter-page. Some more general b/w plates (I counted around 6) have disappeared completely. The notes to the plates have been re-written and some plates have been re-scanned so that missing pieces of text at the top have reappeared but text at the bottom has disappeared!
The new edition feels tighter and more beautifully presented: the glorious colours of some of the plates seem more alive in a smaller format. But, in the older large-format book, more plates are full-page and the original (often manuscript) writings around the pictures are far more legible. If you want a beautiful alchemical read, the new edition has to be your choice. If you want to study every detail in the images, you would be better off with the old edition. Except that you can’t easily find the old edition anymore!
Though they are both firmly about Alchemy, this book is totally different, almost diametrically opposed in spirit to the Lawrence Principe book, reviewed below. Principe is a chemist and sees alchemical philosophy in terms of the mechanics of the Natural world and the product of the laboratory while Klossowski de Rola sees the process in terms of life-long magical artistry. Both scientist and artist are scholars of the same Art. -- Caroline Robertson